Torontonians who demand nothing less than a multi-billion dollar subway would likely burn their city hall to the ground if local officials suggested using school buses to shuttle them to and from work.
But a pilot program in Muskoka District is turning to school buses to help its citizens get around. While major Ontario cities look to expensive transit projects to deal with growing populations and traffic, many cash-strapped rural communities across the province are trying to figure out a different transit challenge: how to serve residents who are widely dispersed, often need to travel long distances for work, and in many cases have health or financial problems that make driving an impossibility.
The pilot, called Muskoka Extended Transit has three companies that operate school buses weekly along seven routes connecting small villages to the larger communities around Muskoka. The initiative is being funded in part by a grant from the provincial ministry of transportation.
It’s an idea that could potentially be applied more widely in rural Ontario: taking advantage of school buses sitting idle between picking up kids in the morning and dropping them back home in the afternoon.
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“Every community has school buses, and the investment required for launching even a skeletal transit system would be so prohibitive,” says Rick Williams, commissioner of community services for Muskoka
The expansion of full-day kindergarten in Ontario schools has meant some school buses are now free for larger blocks of time—small children don’t need to be bused home at noon.
While Muskoka is perhaps most familiar as a cottage community for wealthy city-dwellers, Williams says serving the 60,000 people who live in the area year-round is more complicated.
“Rural Ontario has a disproportionate share of senior residents. We have more people in Muskoka over the age of 75 than we do under the age of 19,” says Williams. This creates a need to connect seniors with medical services often located in central built-up areas, far from the homes of rural residents.
Williams says the local government is also working with other agencies to coordinate services to match the days of transit availability. Two of the seven bus routes, for example, will bring people to Huntsville on Tuesdays so health care providers and seniors centres there will be able to schedule services to match demand.
Yet the need for transit services in rural Ontario goes beyond an aging population. Williams says a number of trends have lowered incomes in rural areas relative to the rest of the province—making it harder to support a car-dependent life that’s all but required.
Many rural areas have been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing across the province. In Muskoka the problem is a little different: changes in the tourism industry and the rise of cottage rentals over the Internet have led to lower employment at the area’s resorts and fewer construction jobs.
Muskoka’s year-round population has fallen from earning 91 per cent of the province’s average income to 83 per cent in 10 years, Williams says.
Other parts of rural Ontario are facing similar pressures and trying to develop their own solutions.
Scott Tousaw, director of planning in Huron County, says the use of school buses makes a lot of sense all over the province—indeed, it’s something Huron County looked at as well but wasn’t able to pursue given concerns about insurance. (According to Williams, Muskoka’s pilot has found bus operators whose insurers were open to the program.)
So the county has adopted a different strategy to help its residents get around: a regionally supported rideshare system. Six counties in southwest Ontario and the city of London are backing a website for potential drivers and riders to coordinate their carpooling. Tousaw says with less than a year of operation it’s too early to make any conclusions about its success so far.
“What we’re looking for is employers to become involved and promote the use of rideshare for their employees,” says Tousaw. “That could help with somebody who needs rural transportation and can’t afford a car.”
He says the large distances of rural Ontario have divided people from affordable housing and their jobs.
“Huron County is an hour’s drive from north to south, with some 60,000 people dispersed between towns, villages, and rural areas,” says Tousaw. And while home prices in rural Ontario are a fraction of those paid in the GTA, they come with a catch.
“We have affordable housing prices, but the difficulty is it’s not near the jobs,” says Tousaw.
Sharing the costs over a broad area—and including as many larger towns as possible— is key for many smaller communities trying to make transit work. According to Susan Stolarchuk, transit administrator for the eastern Ontario town of Deseronto, the community’s bus service connecting residents to Napanee, Belleville, and neighbouring Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory is only possible because of cost-sharing with the city of Greater Napanee, Picton, and Tyendinaga township.
There’s another good reason for Ontario’s municipalities to share costs as broadly as possible.
“Because we share the costs with other municipalities, we get to count the populations of those areas towards our gas tax funding from the province,” says Stolarchuk. By sharing costs over a broad area, Deseronto has increased its share of provincial gas tax funding from $17,000 to $150,000 a year.
Deseronto has found that its bus riders are a real mix of people using transit for a variety of reasons.
“90 per cent of our service are adults; 40 per cent use it for employment, 20 per cent is for education,” says Stolarchuk. The rest use it for errands or appointments.
The same is true in Muskoka. Williams says officials thought workers and seniors would be the primary users of the district’s Corridor 11 bus route, but in the end many of the riders were students travelling from Muskoka to Barrie.
“We didn’t expect that,” he says. “The thing with these pilots is, you need to keep your eyes open. Towns and cities need to be prepared to be surprised.”